The transatlantic travels of recent Harvard graduates Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Henry-Russell Hitchcock, and Philip Johnson are indelibly associated with an exhibition that Johnson would organize a few years later at Barr’s institution, the epoch-making Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, mounted in 1932 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In contrast, Catherine Bauer’s contemporaneous field research in Europe, and the ways in which these experiences underwrote her own contributions to the MoMA exhibition, have remained a footnote. 1
Given the reputation of Modern Architecture, its creation by fresh college graduates was nothing short of extraordinary.
Bauer’s role in Modern Architecture was central, however. Her European travels in the late 1920s and early ’30s yielded an incisive understanding of housing as a social and political imperative — an understanding that informed the exhibition’s display devoted to planned mass housing. Bauer’s unacknowledged role as co-curator of the 1932 show affirmed her departure from formalism and set the stage for subsequent MoMA exhibitions that categorized modern housing as “sociological” and modern architecture as “aesthetic,” in Hitchcock’s words. Critiquing a 1939 exhibit dedicated to public housing, he called for a reciprocal show focused on “architectural excellence rather than … the many possibly more valid criteria of rent level, subsidy, location, etc.” 2 The “aesthetic” in Hitchcock’s binary has dominated historical assessments of the Modern Architecture exhibition, eclipsing analysis of the “sociological.” It was only later, as Kathleen James-Chakraborty has noted, that the show attained mythical postwar status as a catalyst for International Style modernism in the United States. 3
While Bauer’s curatorial contribution may not have had long-lasting repercussions for design practice, her influence on public policy has been profound. Her comparison, in the MoMA installation, of progressive housing schemes in Europe and America established an agenda for legislative activism leading to the U.S. Housing Act of 1937. Yet contemporaneous museum documents relegate her to a marginal role. Perhaps she welcomed this lapse in attribution, given Johnson’s contrasting emphasis, in Modern Architecture, on the patrician country home as a foundational building type for modernism.
In any case, today, a reexamination of Bauer’s work at MoMA not only reveals her emergence as a “houser” — an activist committed to the provision of nonprofit urban housing — but also redefines the pivotal role played by Modern Architecture in transmitting novel building practices across the Atlantic. The exhibition’s simultaneous but colliding representations of housing as a luxurious private asset or as a collective resource reflected divergent interpretations of interwar German modernism that can be traced back to Johnson and Bauer’s separate transatlantic study tours. In another parting of ways informed by European experience, by the mid-1930s each had abandoned curatorial work for direct political action. Bauer’s advocacy for empowered Social Democratic labor unions in the U.S. contrasted sharply with Johnson’s effort to import the populist militancy of fascism.
For the trio of young Harvard men, Germany provided an instructional workshop on modernism. Working on his dissertation, Barr became aware of the innovative integration of modern art, architecture, and applied design being practiced at the Dessau Bauhaus. The revelation would shape MoMA programming and acquisitions from 1929, when he became the museum’s founding director at age 27. 4 Johnson (who had majored in philosophy) absorbed the new design approach on the fly in Europe while preparing for his curatorial debut with Modern Architecture, a role he undertook at Barr’s invitation. Johnson’s traveling companion, Hitchcock, provided further tutorials based on his graduate art-history research. Unbeknownst to the three friends, Bauer — whom they had not yet met — was visiting many of the same buildings at nearly the same time. Her network of American mentors was far broader than Johnson’s, and included cultural critic Lewis Mumford, planned-housing advocates Clarence Stein and Henry Wright, and statistician Edith Elmer Woods, all of whom stressed sociological observation over aesthetic connoisseurship.
In forging American readings of continental modernism, MoMA’s four culture brokers — three Harvard men and a Vassar woman — took part in a flourishing transatlantic exchange.
Given the reputation that eventually accrued for Modern Architecture, its creation by a circle of fresh college graduates was nothing short of extraordinary. Johnson and Bauer were both in their mid-20s when they assumed responsibility for their respective portions of Modern Architecture. Their opposing views about architectural modernity found public expression in the rented suite of offices that served as MoMA’s first home. Johnson used four galleries to announce the emergence of a homogeneous modern style. 5 In the fifth gallery, Bauer defied these interpretations by discarding connoisseurship as a guiding principle. Her installation challenged aesthetic definitions of modernism with photographs of tenements and text panels that argued for the societal impact of design reform, rather than the emergence of a new art-historical epoch. Given the opportunity to create a display consolidating the research of colleagues at the Regional Planning Association of America, or RPAA — for which she was executive secretary — Bauer crafted exhibition materials celebrating the liberation of planned community development from laissez-faire economics: a precondition for “modern housing,” as she defined it.
The discrepant exhibition narratives advanced in Modern Architecture reflected differences in architectural tutelage. While Hitchcock and Barr were teaching Johnson to evaluate visual form through the scholarly connoisseurship pioneered at Harvard, Bauer was learning from her American and German informants to question aesthetic formalism. The position was summarized in Mumford’s essay in the 1932 exhibition catalogue:
These buildings are not complete by themselves … they need the cooperation of the sky, the earth, the forms of men and women, the play of children, the moving routine of life itself. Then and only then does the whole live; the aesthetic arises out of the actual. 6
Elsewhere in the catalogue, thanks are expressed to Stein and Wright as well as to Bauer (in that order) for their assistance “in preparing the housing section of the exhibition.” 7 Terence Riley, whose monograph on the 1932 exhibition remains the authoritative chronicle, describes Mumford’s curatorial role as “minimal” and notes that he had second thoughts about the project from the start. 8 A committed regionalist, Mumford disdained America’s fixation on European precedent and rejected “the International Style” as a label. He preferred Frank Lloyd Wright’s adjective “organic” to describe a broader project of environmental reform in which modern architecture gained its proper context. 9
Bauer’s advocacy for social democratic labor unions in the United States contrasted sharply with Johnson’s effort to import fascism.
Interviewed four decades after the fact, Johnson finally did credit Bauer for the exhibition’s housing portion; it was this disclosure that occasioned a 1978 footnote in The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. In retrospect, her stamp on the installation is unmistakable. Its visual language is characteristic of her 1934 treatise Modern Housing, which uses illustrations “as exhibition panels, deploying the same provocative, comparative techniques as in Modern Architecture,” as historian Barbara Penner observes. 10 Copies of photographs that were reproduced on gallery panels and in exhibition publications can be found in Bauer’s archival holdings at the University of California at Berkeley; some bear MoMA’s stamp on the verso, along with the inscription: “Please return to Catherine Bauer.” Although the original display panels are now lost, one titled “Good Houses are Cheaper than Bad Ones” is reproduced in Modern Housing with a caption noting that Bauer prepared the graphic for the traveling version of Modern Architecture. 11 Evidence secreted in footnotes, captions, and archives thus points to Bauer as the curatorial force behind the nonconforming installation within the museum’s celebration of a new International Style.
In forging American readings of continental modernism, MoMA’s four culture brokers — the trio of Harvard men and a Vassar woman — participated in a flourishing exchange along transatlantic routes that had been blazed by trade and global capital. In Port of New York: Essays on Fourteen American Moderns (1924), critic and journalist Paul Rosenfeld employed transatlantic steamships to serve (in the words of art historian Wanda Corn) as “metaphors for creative American men and women desperately sorting out their relationship to Europe and to their own country.” 12 In living out their own versions of this journey, Bauer and Johnson remade themselves as transatlantic moderns. Each arrived in Europe in pursuit of “cultivation,” enhanced social status, and an escape from dreaded provincialism; born one year apart, each experienced the continental adventure as a life-changing Bildungsreise.
Recalling her youthful journey of enlightenment and self-discovery, Bauer wrote in 1965, “What I saw in Europe in 1930 was so exciting that it transformed me from an aesthete into a housing reformer.” 13 Johnson’s field studies had the opposite effect, polishing his nascent connoisseurship to a lapidary finish. His criteria for excellence excluded mass housing by architects “so concerned with cheap building … that they cannot take aesthetic stock of their work. … In the [Modern] movement those architects are the best who build expensively.” 14 For Bauer, a growing enthusiasm for transformative public policy led to her career as a social housing activist. Johnson’s vision of social modernity, conversely, led him in the 1930s to import not only European design innovation, but also far-right European politics. Commonalities linked these antithetical projects of cultural transfer. Both Johnson and Bauer instinctively understood the synergies between aesthetic and social change, excelled in learning on their feet, forged relationships that were simultaneously intellectual and intimate, and actively sought opportunities to turn new ideas into programs for action. Yet their endeavors yielded asymmetrical results, historically speaking, with one being lionized despite his noxious acts and the other remaining at risk of being forgotten.
The Debut and Demise of La Jeune Fille Americaine
After three weeks of English sightseeing with her college roommate, Bauer arrived in Paris in the autumn of 1926. Having spent a week in plush comfort at a pension favored by Americans, she struck off on her own, subletting a room in an apartment on the Left Bank. What began as a brief layover became an extended engagement as the New Jersey debutante refashioned herself as a bohemian. Her temporary expatriation was made possible by her father’s successful career in highway engineering, as well as by recent changes in immigration law. The U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 had instituted quotas and nation-of-origin preferences for unskilled immigrants. As profits from steerage-class berths plummeted, steamship companies responded by promoting affordable tickets to middle-class American tourists, who seized on down-market versions of the Grand Tour.
Young women traveling solo could savor an intoxicating sense of independence, and interwar Paris developed a name for them: le type transatlantique. Bauer became one, welcomed by a community of avant-garde artists and writers. Fetes ended with evening slippers tossed into the Seine at dawn. A portrait by a bearded artist depicted her with green hair. At the Salon d’Automne, she examined furnishings and model interiors “so different from the ordinary that they take your breath away.” 15 As weeks turned into months, Bauer supplemented her funds by elaborating her misadventures in satirical newspaper essays under the pen name “La Jeune Fille Americaine.” The articles’ cheeky sophistication asserted her persona as a Jazz Age New Woman, a playful adventurer alive with erotic esprit, adept at dazzling conversation, and wielding irony with deadpan accuracy. Her identification with the persona was so total that for years she would refer to herself in diary entries and letters with the nom-de-plume “j.f.a.” 16
Although the market for j.f.a.’s exploits seemed inexhaustible, Bauer’s enthusiasm for such anecdotes was not. A year into her sojourn, she devised a more rewarding writing assignment. “No one in America knows anything about Modern Domestic Architecture,” she wrote to her parents. Fluent in French, Bauer interviewed two prominent architects, Rob Mallet-Stevens and André Lurçat, photographed their Parisian work, and filled pages with notes. The resulting essay, “Machine-Age Mansions for Ultra-Moderns,” appeared in the New York Times the following spring. It opens with a flippancy worthy of j.f.a.:
Just when those of us who have gotten together a good Olde English or Italian drawing room are prepared to settle in for the rest of our lives, we are suddenly pushed into the wave of French Modernism. Perhaps we are annoyed, but what can we do about it? 17
The tone shifts as Bauer sets out to explain foreign design to a domestic audience. She refutes dismissals of French “ultra-modern” houses as “merely faddish,” noting their ancestry in American grain elevators and factories. Pointing to the Fordist logic in Le Corbusier’s aphorism “A house is a machine for living in,” she illustrates her article with residences that contradict “all our rosy ideals of ‘homelike atmosphere.’” Bauer casts doubt on the conquest of American home construction by avant-garde machine aesthetics, observing that historical styles provide “a badge of social distinction.” (The assertion was confirmed upon her return to the U.S. in 1927, as she gazed in horror at the picturesque roofline and applied half-timber façade of the mock-Tudor home that her parents had built in New Jersey while she was away). 18 Bauer’s Times essay, which appeared just days before her 23rd birthday, includes a passage foreshadowing her future commitments as an activist. “M. Le Corbusier is more of a sociologist than are his contemporaries,” she writes. “He is interested primarily in more and better and cheaper houses for the ordinary man.” 19
Bauer undertook research in Frankfurt’s newly redesigned residential districts, which came to define her notion of modern housing.
Back in Manhattan, Bauer took a job in the editorial office of Harcourt, Brace and Company, and began to assemble a collection of mentors who would shape her transformation from design critic to “houser.” Through relationships with “a series of accomplished young men,” as her publishing-world friend Matthew Josephson explained, Bauer “learned enough — for she was a brilliant student — to choose her own vocation and become a celebrity in her field.” 20 The most consequential of these relationships was the intellectual and romantic bond she forged with Mumford, whom she met at Harcourt, Brace in 1929. Through him, Bauer gained entry to a circle of colleagues who shared her passion for architectural reform.
Introduced to the RPAA, a think tank for community-planning advocates, she became its executive secretary. Under the tutelage of the association’s co-founder Clarence Stein (who would soon be ranked above her in the acknowledgements in the Modern Architecture catalogue), she learned to collect and analyze data. The reformer Edith Elmer Wood, who used government statistics to compile the first national assessment of housing needs, inspired Bauer to use quantitative methods and, in 1930, to undertake field research in Frankfurt’s new residential districts, which came to define her notion of “modern housing.” 21 Bauer coyly dismissed her own intellectual prowess in a note to Mumford, predicting his eventual discovery “that my conversation is a trick, that I have a synthetic intellect, that I am a show-off.” 22 But it was precisely her ability to synthesize arcane concepts and to convey them with conversational ease that distinguished her as a singular intellect rather than anyone’s apprentice.
Bauer’s German study tour of 1930 proved as transformative as her earlier stay in Paris: “I can feel the beginnings of a real and honest self-confidence sprouting up to take the place of the brassy nerve which serves as a kind of martial law for j.f.a.” 23 The metamorphosis from ingénue to authority poisoned her affair with Mumford. “I reach for you and what do I touch? A housing expert,” he complained. “I call in the stillness of the night and what do I hear: The percentage of vacancies in … apartment houses in Germany as opposed to cottages.” 24 She insisted that he bore part of the blame. “You transformed an insufferably smarty dilettante into a good semblance of a serious and responsible worker, with not only ideas and interests and receptivities and large desires but sometimes a passionate conviction of purpose that eclipses everything else.” 25 While he remained a friend and colleague, Mumford would never again be her romantic partner. Bauer’s developing career expunged someone else from her life as well. A year after publishing Modern Housing, she confessed: “My old Arty self of 1927-Paris would commit suicide at the spectacle [of my present circumstances] — if she were not so thoroughly dead.” 26
A “Museum Boy” Apprenticeship
As heir to a fortune in Alcoa shares, Johnson had little use for a scaled-back Grand Tour. Preparation for his 1929 voyage included the purchase of a new Packard convertible; stowed in the hold of the SS Bremen, the fastest and most luxurious liner of its day, the roadster ensured a continuity of first-class travel in Europe. For a trip the following summer, research began with the selection of a low-slung Cord L-29 convertible, acquired in Manhattan and loaded aboard a steamer to accompany Johnson on another transatlantic journey. 27 His continental road trips afforded welcome relief for a number of less privileged associates. Barr crossed the Atlantic in 1929 in tourist third; Hitchcock was no better off. Describing a 1930 outing with Hitchcock to review “every [modernist] building in Europe,” Johnson reminisced: “I had the car and the money, so we traveled around and had a high old time.” 28
Johnson’s research visits were also shopping sprees. In Dessau, he bought a “charming” watercolor by Paul Klee, the master instructor of design theory and practice at the Bauhaus. (Johnson later donated it to MoMA. 29) He bought an etching by Picasso and a drawing by Aristide Maillol; he “dickered and dickered” with Corbusier over the price of architectural drawings without coming to an agreement. 30 Hitchcock had better luck in Piet Mondrian’s studio, where he bought a painting on Johnson’s behalf. 31 During a side trip to London, Johnson acquired a wardrobe of suits that he described in a letter home as “gorgeous, of course, but the total cost is as usual staggering.” 32 (By contrast, when Bauer needed an evening dress to attend a swank Parisian party, she sewed it herself with help from her French tutor’s maid. 33)
Visiting the 1930 Salon des Artistes Décorateurs in Paris, Johnson declared, “the German show of furniture here is so wonderful that I am importing a whole set of it.” 34 From the studio of Mies van der Rohe, he arranged for export of a writing table with leather-wrapped top, a rosewood chest and daybed, a pair of Barcelona chairs, a set of dining chairs, 65 meters of Honan silk, and 80 meters of rush floor matting. 35 Although architecture tends to defy overseas transport, Johnson was not deterred. He commissioned a villa from J.J.P. Oud for a family property in North Carolina, and an interior design scheme from Mies and Lily Reich for his Manhattan apartment. 36 In a letter to his mother, he confided his ambition to have “the first room entirely in my latest style in America … I think it would be the cheapest possible kind of publicity for my style.” 37 As Terence Riley observes, Johnson’s use of the possessive pronoun was “consistent with the acquisitorial privilege of patronage.” 38 More significantly, it signaled his plan to launch an interior decorating practice in Manhattan by appropriating the style devised by Mies and Reich.
The point of chronicling Johnson’s spending habits is not to moralize, but to contextualize. Continental tours by Gilded Age patricians had bankrolled a movement known as “the American Renaissance,” which announced that the U.S., empowered by triumphal wealth and democratic spirit, could claim rights to European classicism and its antique sources. The industrialist J.P. Morgan spent millions every day during overseas buying trips, furnishing his mansions and supplying New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Morgan Library with collections rivaling those of museums in European capitals. The McMillan Plan for the redevelopment of Washington D.C. as a Beaux-Arts urban ensemble was intended to establish cultural parity with Europe. The architect Stanford White declared: “In the past, dominant nations had always plundered works of art from their predecessors. … America was taking a leading place among nations and had, therefore, the right to obtain art wherever she could.” 39 Johnson may have reviled the neoclassicism favored by a previous generation of plutocrats, but American Renaissance methods haunted his project to appropriate European modernism for transatlantic use.
Johnson’s research visits were also shopping sprees: art by Klee and Picasso, suits from London tailors, interiors by Mies van der Rohe and Lily Reich.
Reviving another Grand Tour legacy, Johnson’s Bildungsreise combined aesthetic and sexual enlightenment. From Goethe’s Italian Journey to Lord Byron’s Mediterranean sojourn, male literati had used cultural pilgrimage sites as libidinal proving grounds. Their adventures were celebrated in verse and belles-lettres — as long as the quarry was of the opposite sex. Well-heeled travelers inflamed by an antiquarian sensibility suffused with homoeroticism pioneered a more furtive version of the Grand Tour. Adherents of Rome’s “Italian vice” were discussed in whispers in British polite society. The torch passed to France in the late 19th century, when Victorians dubbed Paris “the great Babylon.” By Johnson’s time, Germany had left other contenders in the dust. “Life in Berlin was then at the height of heights … the highest pitch of sophistication and abandon,” recalled the gay painter Marsden Hartley. 40 Upon arrival in the city, Johnson shaved his mustache and wrote to his mother “I shall never conceal myself again” — a declaration that referenced far more than facial hair. 41
With its budding homosexual rights movement and homophile journals displayed on public newsstands, Berlin dissolved Johnson’s neurasthenic persona as a “tragic homosexual.” Harvard colleagues who visited him also found ways to integrate their professional and erotic lives. Johnson’s German road tour with John McAndrew, another future curator of architecture at MoMA, sparked a joint scheme to publish a co-authored guide to Europe’s new architecture. The plan faded as quickly as their affair. Johnson revived the project in the summer of 1930, however, with Hitchcock as co-author, while the two were sharing not only Berlin digs but also Carey Ross, Barr’s unsalaried MoMA assistant, in a casual ménage. 42 Business and pleasure merged again in Johnson’s affair with Jan Ruhtenberg, a married furniture designer ten years his senior. Ruhtenberg’s connections opened doors to Bauhaus faculty homes on the couple’s visit to Dessau.
Back in New York, the fusion of sexual and cultural modernity that characterized Berlin’s avant-garde would resurface at the Museum of Modern Art.
Back in New York, the fusion of sexual and cultural modernity that characterized Berlin’s avant-garde resurfaced at MoMA in ways that were evident, if unspoken. Interwar Berlin had allowed Johnson and his friends to explore gay identity far more safely than they could in Manhattan, where sodomy was a felony offense. In the small American art world, antagonists seized on perceived links between Harvard, homosexuals, and modernism to attack the aesthetic and sexual degeneracy of “obliquely-turned museum boys.” The painter Thomas Hart Benton warned readers of the New York World-Telegram about the threat posed by “the third sex and the museums.” Critic Thomas Craven denounced those who promoted art “to titillate mischievous erotic appetites.” 43 The unnamed target of Craven’s slander was the flamboyant young director of Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, A. Everett Austin, known as “Chick” to Harvard classmates Barr and Hitchcock.
MoMA presented an even softer target for art-world homophobes. Its “museum boys” included Johnson, Hitchcock, McAndrew, and Ross, as well as Lincoln Kirstein, Edward M.M. (Eddie) Warburg, and the museum’s associate director Jere Abbott, whose cohabitation with Barr was ridiculed by Hitchcock as “cette étrange ménage.” 44 Frank Lloyd Wright, who strenuously objected to being cast as one of MoMA’s “International Style” architects, worried that “this movement which we call modern art and painting … is greatly in debt to homosexualism.” 45 For Johnson and his circle, the inverse held true. Their “homosexualism” was greatly in debt to the modern arts that had drawn them to Berlin.
Johnson’s disinterest in architecture as a medium of social reform echoed principles inculcated through the Museum Works and Museums Problems course offered at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. Counting Barr and Hitchcock as alumni, the course groomed aspiring curators as “connoisseur-scholars” — the very type mocked by homophobes as “soft little fellows from the Fogg factory.” 46 Training stressed the visual grammar of objects, dismissing not only contemporary German theories of aesthetic perception rooted in sociology, but also earlier Harvard pedagogy emphasizing art’s capacity to nurture moral refinement. In the Museum Course, as author Noam Cohen observes, “ideological baggage was simply not relevant to the evaluative process.” 47
The curriculum had an unlikely source: Paul J. Sachs, a partner at Goldman Sachs, the investment firm. His analytical recasting of connoisseurship had been prompted by a misfortune suffered as a collector in an art market awash with fakes. After falling for a pricey forgery, Sachs systematized his acquisition methods and became a self-trained connoisseur-scholar. 48 Independent wealth allowed him to abandon the finance industry for an unpaid position at the Fogg; promotion to assistant professor in Harvard’s Department of Fine Arts secured his legacy. Sachs personally funded Barr’s doctoral research in Europe and recommended him for the position as MoMA’s founding director. 49 Through a chain of influence that can be seen as either improbable or consistent with the affordances of capital, a mode of aesthetic evaluation devised by a Wall Street banker to avoid art-investment blunders wound up informing curatorial practice at what would become one of the world’s most influential museums.
Barr and Hitchcock trained Johnson in the methods of connoisseurship they had learned from Sachs. Touring the Weissenhof housing exhibition in Stuttgart in 1930, Johnson reveled in in his newfound powers of discernment. “One good sign has already developed,” he reported in a letter to his mother. “I like the work by the best architects best. I mean that the ones that Barr and those people said were the greatest are head and shoulders above the rest of the mob.” 50 Rather than grasping the Weissenhof exhibition as an architectural ensemble, he saw its individual parts as competing pavilions. His assessment of contributing architects as contenders rather than collaborators reiterated the compare-and-contrast bias inherent in the Harvard method, promoted by Sachs and his acolytes as a universally applicable mode of analysis.
As Johnson and Hitchcock were scouting modernist masterworks from their base in Berlin, Bauer arrived in Germany on a second European study trip. A loan from her parents paid for transatlantic passage; savings and a cash gift from Mumford funded her research. Wielding ethnographic modes of inquiry rather than aesthetic connoisseurship, Bauer on this visit grasped the world-building mission of Weimar-era modernism.
Barr and Hitchcock trained Johnson in methods of connoisseurship learned from an unlikely source: Paul J. Sachs, a partner at Goldman Sachs.
Mumford’s letters of introduction thrust Bauer into the orbits of architects Ernst May and Walter Curt Behrendt, both advocates of modern architecture’s “development of a new art on the basis of a right social life,” in Behrendt’s words. 51 A career in housing policy and editorial positions at the influential design journals Der Neubau and Die Form shaped Behrendt’s understanding of architecture as a harbinger of social transformation. In subordinating building style to the goal of constructing a new lifeworld, architects in Behrendt’s circle communicated the stakes of their project through newly forged terms. One was das neue Bauen or “the new way of building,” a phrase that linked cultural reform to its architectural instruments. Another keyword, Gestaltung, is difficult to translate; “design,” its usual English approximation, grossly underestimates the concept’s original scope — as Bauer must have recognized when she used the German term, untranslated, in her 1934 treatise, Modern Housing. 52 Introduced at the turn of the century in the context of forms (Gestalten) that make visible “the harmony of an ethical world picture,” Gestaltung came to define an overarching mission for interwar modernism.53 When Walter Gropius moved the Bauhaus to Dessau in 1925, he designated the school a “Hochschule für Gestaltung.” Its architecture instructor, Hannes Meyer, mapped the pedagogical implications of this renaming:
we despise any form
that prostitutes itself as a formula.
the ultimate goal of all bauhaus work is thus
to bring together the forces that bind life
to create a harmonious structure for society. 54
Visiting the Bauhaus in 1927, Barr had interpreted its unifying social vision as a unity of style — a formalist misreading with enormous consequences for MoMA’s conception of modernism. Relying on local informants for her perspective on das neue Bauen, Bauer arrived at a more holistic understanding. She marveled at the Dessau-Törten housing estate, designed by Gropius, and interviewed its residents with the help of a translator. She reported to Mumford, “These laborers … are really proud of modern architecture as something made for them and for a new order which belongs to them.” 55
Bauer recognized German reformist housing as an expression of modern objectivity or precision, as connoted in the key term die neue Sachlichkeit.
Bauer recognized German reformist housing as the built expression of another pivotal term: die neue Sachlichkeit. To curb modish flittery, turn-of-the-century design theorist Hermann Muthesius had advanced Sachlichkeit as the alternative to decoration. Typically translated as “objectivity,” Sachlichkeit connotes realism, sobriety, impartiality, and precision — qualities that undermine romanticized notions of the heroic artist. 56 Revived in the 1920s as die neue Sachlichkeit, the idea bore radical implications for architectural practice. “No individual talent or personality will decide the issue [of design],” Behrendt asserted. 57 He detected in the Weissenhof exhibition “an entirely new mode of cultural production as the direct expression of modern life, or more precisely, of changing life forces, life feelings, and life-forms.” 58
Through the influence of Behrendt and Bauer, Mumford also adopted die neue Sachlichkeit as a term signifying modern architecture’s revolutionary potential. 59 His enthusiasm for both the concept and a particularly cherished proponent of it led Mumford to exclaim in The Brown Decades, his survey of American arts in the late-19th century, “One can almost agree with a young American critic of architecture when she says: [Henry Hobson] Richardson was the real founder of the Neue Sachlichkeit; there are no connecting links.” 60 Mumford was wrong about Richardson, but the remark — published in 1931, a year before Mumford’s first visit to Germany’s laboratories of urban modernism — indicates Bauer’s impact as a passeur, the term used by Tzvetan Todorov for a courier between cultures. 61
American observers of Weimar modernism ascribed novel meanings to another pivotal term, Siedlungen, which in German simply means “housing developments.” For Mumford and Bauer, however, the word implied a type of housing funded by means that had no parallel in the U.S. To remedy a desperate interwar housing shortage, German municipalities enacted a hefty property tax called the Hauszinssteuer on homes built before 1918. Social Democratic city administrations and nonprofit associations used the proceeds to fund planned residential districts. Bauer and Mumford praised these Siedlungen as immersive environments integrating architecture, landscape, and furnishings — a breakthrough less significant as an aesthetic phenomenon than for its potential to define a new lifeworld.
The ring of satellite settlements known as das neue Frankfurt offered a persuasive case study. 62 Built by a municipal agency headed by Ernst May, the project added 14,000 new units to the city over a five-year period. 63 As the site of the 1929 gathering of the Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne, “the New Frankfurt” attracted 130 delegates from fourteen nations for guided tours and exhibits. An opening address by Gropius explored “The Sociological Foundations of the Minimum Dwelling,” and a three-day Neues Bauen course sold out far in advance. When the housing intensive was offered again in 1930 (this time by the city of Frankfurt itself), Bauer was the only American among 150 international participants. 64
In summer 1930, as Bauer studied German housing estates, Johnson and Hitchcock initiated quite a different architectural-transfer program.
Bauer’s documentation of the construction, financing, land-use policies, and residential demographics at work in Frankfurt’s Siedlungen not only secured her transformation from j.f.a. to professional “houser,” but also garnered a cash reward. Just as she was preparing to depart for Europe, Fortune magazine had announced a competition for an essay on “Art and Industry”; its $1,000 award was enormous for 1930 (roughly the yearly income of a nurse). Bauer’s essay on New Frankfurt took first place, beating out a submission by Mumford. Distilling four lessons from May’s building program, she cited “a triumph of organization,” “standardization,” “the intelligent acceptance of mass production,” and architecture as an “incontrovertible argument for a new industrial esthetic.” 65 Frankfurt’s fusion of design and industry would sound familiar to Fortune readers, Bauer explained, because it was borrowed from U.S. corporate capitalism. May’s “20th century solution for the problem of minimum-cost houses” harnessed “economy, imagination, large-scale planning, and mass-production — in short, Americanization.” To facilitate a New World adoption of neues Bauen practices, Bauer inverted the avant-garde tactic of defamiliarization by citing tried-and-true business concepts while omitting ideologies and abstractions that might mystify Americans.
In the summer of 1930, while Bauer was studying housing estates in Frankfurt, Johnson and Hitchcock had initiated quite a different transatlantic cultural-transfer program from their temporary home in Berlin. Johnson’s mothballed plan to compile a picture book on European modernism was revived with Hitchcock on board as collaborator, but now the book was to be written in German for a local audience. Given a market saturated with similar volumes at a time of shrinking book sales, the notion that Americans could decipher European modernism for those who created and lived with it was audacious, to say the least. Johnson, characteristically, was undeterred. “We have a tremendous advantage over everyone else,” he declared in a dispatch to his family, “in that we have seen more than everybody and that we have no national bias whatsoever.” 66 The book’s working title, Also doch ein Baustil (An Architectural Style Nevertheless) revealed its underlying polemic. “Naturally the critical analysis will be purely aesthetic, to the great disappointment of our ‘sachlich’ friends, who think of nothing but sociology,” Johnson wrote. 67
He and Hitchcock saw themselves as missionaries, bringing Harvard’s formalist connoisseurship to German heretics. But publishers were uninterested, and the plan to propagate Museum Course gospel abroad came to nothing. “In vain do we explain that there has been no book covering the whole style and nothing but the style,” Johnson lamented. 68 The volume was ultimately published in New York in 1932 as The International Style, in which Hitchcock and Johnson settled on “functionalist” as their English-language epithet for architects skeptical of form-driven design. “Our whole aim — Hitchcock’s and mine — was to beat out the functionalists,” Johnson later explained. 69 Differing from MoMA’s Modern Architecture catalogue in its combative polemics, their book disparaged the collaborative, data-driven design practices that had revolutionized German social housing, instead equating modern architecture with the heroic individual authorship considered passé by advocates of die neue Sachlichkeit.
Showdown on Fifth Avenue
In January 1932, a sneak preview of Modern Architecture: International Exhibition invited New Yorkers to consider “the housing question.” 70Johnson and his assistant, Alan Blackburn, had thrown together the installation in a 48-hour marathon at MoMA’s temporary headquarters on Fifth Avenue. 71 Attendance was thin. In the New York Times, a review concentrated on two architectural models said to address “the housing problem of persons of moderate means.” The German Siedlung was represented by a tabletop miniature of Otto Haesler’s Rothenburg complex in Kassel, hailed by Mumford as “one of the most complete examples, perhaps, of all the principles of modern housing.” 72 Manhattan’s Christie-Forsyth proposal, by George Howe and William Lescaze, offered an American alternative. This pairing established a false equivalency: Other than their shared “International Style” design idiom, the two projects differed in nearly every respect.
In January 1932, Modern Architecture: International Exhibition invited New Yorkers to consider ‘the housing question.’
Haesler’s Siedlung, a planned 2,500-unit community of which the first 550 apartments had been built, expressed the ideals of German municipal socialism. 73 Christie-Forsyth, commissioned by Johnson to prove that modern mass housing could be built by a private developer, existed only on paper. The architects, Howe and Lescaze, envisioned rental apartments for 10,000 residents on the site of a Lower East Side tenement district that had been condemned and cleared by the city. 74 With its streamlined slabs hovering above grade on thin pilotis, Christie-Forsyth exuded 20th-century panache. But it relied on a 19th-century funding model, the “philanthropy-and-five percent [profit]” system that had built Manhattan’s previous generation of model tenements. Within an easy commute to Wall Street, the Christie-Forsyth proposal was an exercise in gentrification. 75 As a scheme to create middle-class market-rate housing, the project was dead on arrival. No developer, philanthropic or otherwise, was willing to invest in the proposition that Wall Street workers could be persuaded to rent a sleek apartment in the notorious Bowery district.
The visitor’s experience of Modern Architecture: International Exhibition began with a model and drawings of Christie-Forsyth, which Johnson installed in the museum foyer. The path continued the length of a gallery that included a model of another conjectural housing project, the Lux Apartments, designed by Monroe and Irwin Bowman, brothers whose Chicago firm had no built work to its name. Two flanking chambers took viewers into either Bauer’s congregate housing installation or a display titled “The Extent of Modern Architecture,” an international selection of buildings shown in photographs arranged by country. A final gallery showcased the work of Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, J.J.P. Oud, and Frank Lloyd Wright, elevating the four as masters of International Style modernism. Wall-mounted photographs provided the backdrop for four podium-mounted models of contemporary country homes, each complete with servants’ quarters. The exhibition thus culminated by establishing the luxury villa as the most consequential building type for the new architectural idiom. This celebration of wealth as a mainstay of modernist progress must have seemed like a fever dream, given its timing. Modern Architecture coincided with the nadir of the Great Depression. After taking in the show, visitors strolling north through Central Park would have encountered an architectural spectacle more in keeping with the Zeitgeist — a “Hooverville” of shanties built in the basin of a drained reservoir by New Yorkers too poor to pay rent.
Bauer grasped the show’s detachment from economic reality. In a note to Mumford, she wondered whether Modern Architecture simply had made modern housing “safe for millionaires.” 76 Her suspicion was well founded. Another curatorial selection by Johnson, Raymond Hood’s “Project for an Apartment Tower in the Country,” invented a novel building type, the rural pied-à-terre. Drawings depicted units with boudoir, library, and maid’s bedroom, as required by the lifestyle described in a wall panel:
There is a distinct class of people who, either from a nomadic desire never to stay long in one place, or from a distaste of petty householder’s worry, do not want the burden and responsibility of a country house. Yet they dislike the crime and noise of the city, love the quiet charm of the country and would like to live there part or all of the time. 77
Residents of this patrician enclave would enjoy manicured grounds with “swimming pool, tennis and squash courts,” and “bosquets with shrub-hidden tea tables.” 78 A podium-mounted model of Hood’s 20-story country skyscraper lent substance to the hypothetical project, which proclaimed the International Style a class act.
Bauer used her curatorial anonymity to good advantage as the author of a review of the MoMA exhibition for the journal Creative Art. As critic, she inverted the plutocratic ethos expressed in Johnson’s contributions to Modern Architecture by examining the proposals in the context of social responsibility. She dismissed his exaltation of the avant-garde villa, asserting that “any free-standing modern mansion, however luxurious, is somewhat outside the most important practice of modern architecture.” 79 Upending the exhibition’s focus on style, she redefined the term in a manner that must have baffled Harvard’s connoisseur-scholars.
Style in this sense implies the common acceptance, conscious or unconscious, of a basic norm of design. … But more than that, it defines architecture, first and last, as the social art — as the expression of those forces which keep people together and not those which separate and individualize. 80
The passage would be repeated word for word two years later in Modern Housing. 81 Bauer’s review celebrated the work of “town-planners, the housing experts, the science-minded socialists, the men who have revolutionized the possibilities and actualities of low-cost dwellings” — in other words, the protagonists of her own social housing installation.
The International Style Put Right
Attendance at Modern Architecture was modest throughout its run. The show’s reputation as it took shape decades later was misleadingly based on the legacy of the sister publication that Hitchcock and Johnson had originally intended for publication in Germany. The International Style dispensed with the exhibition catalogue’s biographies of architects. Instead, it offered tips on the transatlantic reproduction of continental modernism. Boiling down the Style to a set of compositional principles, Hitchcock and Johnson promised that “anyone who follows the rules … can produce buildings which are at least aesthetically sound.” 82
A chapter on “The Siedlung” — the term would have been incomprehensible to the book’s target audience — revisited the design polemic that had inflamed the two authors while in Berlin. According to Johnson, the text was written “in a fury against the functionalist, German Social Democratic workers’ approach to architecture as part of social revolution.” 83 His conflation of “functionalism” with “social revolution” is significant. Hitchcock had criticized functionalism for undercutting the primacy of aesthetics, but acknowledged that “action must be political as well as architectural if the city is to be made habitable for the majority of its citizens,” as he attested in the MoMA exhibition catalogue. Similarly, Barr’s foreword to the catalogue noted: “Many architectural problems are touched upon in the exhibition … But more urgently [sic] than any of these is the problem of low-rent housing.” 84 Despite having tutored Johnson in the skills of scholarly connoisseurship, both Hitchcock and Barr recognized the crisis in market-based shelter and the need to seek alternatives.
The International Style delivers a very different message. Although it commends European modernists for mass housing that achieved “the neutral aesthetic level of good building,” sometimes even rising “to the level of architecture,” the endorsement bristles with red flags. In private residential commissions, “the functions of the house as a place to live can be worked out by the architect with the client,” but this was not the case in mass housing. “The Siedlung implies preparation not for a given family but for a typical family. This statistical monster, the typical family, has no personal existence and cannot defend itself against the sociological theories of architects.” 85 Another passage suggests a political motive: “Too often in European Siedlungen the functionalists build for some proletarian superman.” 86 Might such dwellings transform unsuspecting residents into leftist revolutionaries? The point was important enough to reiterate: “The arguments of the functionalists are not based on the actual situation in the contemporary world outside Russia.” 87 Stitching right-wing rhetoric into its censure of functionalism, The International Style advanced a polemic absent from Hitchcock’s independent writings. What accounts for the anomaly?
In 1934, Philip Johnson and Alan Blackburn resigned their posts at MoMA and declared they were abandoning art for politics.
Although Hitchcock and Johnson are listed as co-authors of The International Style, Johnson and his Harvard chum and MoMA assistant, Alan Blackburn, had edited Hitchcock’s draft to amend its stilted academic tone. 88 Did they also introduce its reactionary reading of the Siedlung? A memo that Johnson shot off to Hitchcock suggests that a major intervention was in order. “I am horrified about the book. You know you have spent insufficient time in rewriting. I am sorry but my name goes on the book too and it must be good.” 89 The project’s timing is also suggestive. As Johnson and Blackburn edited Hitchock’s text, they bonded over a shared passion for insurgent politics. Their radicalization gained momentum upon entering the orbit of fellow Harvard alumnus Lawrence Dennis, who proclaimed American fascism “a revolutionary formula for the frustrated elite.” 90 Under his mentorship, Johnson and Blackburn reinforced each other’s extremism. From their mutual makeover as fascist militants, a breadcrumb trail leads back to the intemperate — and, for Hitchcock, utterly incongruous — claims about German social housing that appear in The International Style.
Late in 1934, Johnson and Blackburn resigned their posts at MoMA, made the surprising declaration that they were abandoning art for politics, and packed their bags for a road trip. Johnson coordinated the venture’s public relations campaign. At an interview staged in his apartment, a reporter inquired about the firearms catalogues that were lying about; Herald Tribune readers hungry for Manhattan celebrity news learned that “Mr. Johnson favored a submachine gun but Mr. Blackburn preferred one of the larger types of pistol.” 91 The story of former museum boys headed for Louisiana in search of political careers seemed laughable, especially coming just weeks after news broke about the misadventure of another fascist ingénue. Returning from his own German study tour, Gerald MacGuire, a Wall Street stockbroker, had approached retired U.S. Marine Major General Smedley Butler asking for help with a coup d’etat. After visiting Berlin to survey right-wing mobilization tactics, MacGuire informed Butler that financiers would contribute 50 million dollars toward a march on the Capitol to overthrow the national government. Butler reported the conspiracy to authorities, and the failed plot made headlines. 92
Even so, MacGuire’s aborted coup supported a contention made by Dennis in The Coming American Fascism (1936) that an insurgency would begin not at the federal level, but with the capture and “complete control of one state government.” 93 Dennis singled out Louisiana Senator Huey Long as “the best example of the nearest approach to a national fascist leader.” Johnson and Blackburn had apparently come to the same conclusion, and in December 1934 they departed for Baton Rouge in a twelve-cylinder Packard convertible to make good on it.
Johnson designed a uniform and a symbol for his nationalist faction, and was captivated by the Visomatic, a device that paired recordings and projected images.
For the next six years, Johnson applied his design abilities, social skills, cultural cachet, and considerable private resources to bringing fascism to America. He and Blackburn launched what they called the National Party (later renamed the Young Nationalist Party) in 1934. It had no platform or program. Johnson is said to have described it as “merely a group of young men interested in ‘direct action’ in politics, who believed in a totalitarian state and leadership instead of democracy.” 94 While the ideology remained vague, the heraldry was precisely defined. Johnson devised a uniform of gray shirts and designed a flying wedge as the faction’s symbol. With flags fluttering from the fenders of his Lincoln Zephyr, he sped through towns in his family’s home state of Ohio, broadcasting campaign messages from a roof-mounted speaker. 95 Another messaging technology that captivated his imagination was the Visomatic, a device that paired phonograph recordings with projected images. Johnson tried without success to convince Senator Long that the invention would bring his electrifying rallies into living rooms across America. 96
When Long was assassinated in 1935, Johnson found a new strongman to serve: Reverend Monsignor Charles Edward Coughlin, the so-called “Radio Priest,” whose weekly “Golden Hour” sermon reached 30 million listeners. (Its shrill blend of patriotic and antisemitic rhetoric has since earned Coughlin recognition as “the father of hate radio.” 97) In September 1936, Johnson designed Coughlin’s rostrum for a rally in Chicago’s Riverview amusement park. Abstract white planes wed his beloved International Style to the scenographics of a Hitler Youth rally that Johnson had attended four years earlier in Germany. 98 Seen by a crowd of 80,000, the rostrum was Johnson’s first realized building commission and the closest he would get, literally or figuratively, to becoming an architect of American fascism.
Franz Schulze, in his biography of Johnson, calls the years from 1934 to 1946 the “Inglorious Detour.” The designation downplays more than a decade of fascist endeavors by establishing his life in architecture as the norm, and his political career as a lamentable aberration. Schulze did not invent the trope of the “detour”; Johnson and his defenders repeatedly used the concept of an embarrassing interregnum as the pretext for his rehabilitation. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a cofounder of MoMA, brushed off Johnson’s exploits by remarking that “every young man is entitled to make one bad mistake.” 99 Similarly blaming youth and wealth for his right-wing fling, Johnson proclaimed it “the stupidest thing I ever did.” 100
Given his focus on fashioning political accessories — flags, costumes, stage sets, and recordings of rallies — Johnson’s efforts can seem like a window dresser’s tribute to fascism rather than the thing itself. However, right-wing extremism went global in the 1930s not through a common doctrine but via linked performances of mass mobilization. Shirt uniforms, for instance, provided a varied yet unambiguous signifier of fascist identity. The grayshirt movement that Johnson and Blackburn organized in the U.S. found parallels in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Beirut, and Damascus. Greenshirts marched in Egypt, Cuba, and rural France; blueshirts in China and on the Iberian peninsula; brownshirts in Germany and Pennsylvania; blackshirts in Rome, London, Kenya, Argentina, California, and New Jersey. If political performance rather than canonic ideology spread fascism, as historian Joseph Fronczac argues, then Johnson’s activities arose not at the margins of that extremist project, but at its heart. 101
Two Roads Diverge
Johnson underwent a startling transformation over the course of 1934. His Machine Art exhibition in March had garnered critical acclaim and prompted the New York Times to dub him an “exhibition maestro.” But by December, he had resigned from the museum and unveiled the new persona of a militant fascist. Zealotry catapulted him beyond the garden-variety nativism and antisemitism percolating through American society in the ’30s. To embrace illiberal views and racist stereotypes is one thing; to adopt the victory of totalitarianism as a life project is quite another.
This exceptionality demands explanation. Clues to the metamorphosis emerge from recent studies by psychologists specializing in trajectories to political extremism. Steps in that conversion process include seeking approval from a radicalizing authority figure, abandoning job and home to connect with other militants, and a fixation on weaponry — all of which can be tracked in Johnson’s biography. 102 According to experts, anger and alienation are the tripwires for commitment to extremism. What were these for Johnson and Blackburn? Johnson did endure a painful abandonment in 1934 when Jimmie Daniels, a nightclub singer whom he had set up in a Harlem apartment (and later called “the first Mrs. Johnson”), left him for another man. 103 Blackburn’s disaffection seems to have been job related. As MoMA’s chief administrator, he weathered fundraising failures on the part of rich trustees whom he regarded as inept. 104 Might museum-related adversities have embittered Johnson as well?
As politics siphoned Johnson’s energy away from MoMA’s Department of Architecture, trustees and director Alfred Barr moved on.
The Housing Exhibit of the City of New York, the last show mounted by MoMA’s Department of Architecture under Johnson’s nominal direction, opened in October 1934. Its survey of obstacles to U.S. housing reform and celebration of European precedents must have sparked Johnson’s ire. The curator was Carol Aranovici, a scholar with expertise in German social housing. A Berlin Siedlung designed by Johnson’s “sociologue” nemesis, Walter Gropius, graced the cover of the exhibition publication, which was titled America Can’t Have Housing. 105 An introductory display juxtaposed New York tenement facades with an image of children in the garden courtyard of a New Frankfurt Siedlung; an installation titled “One German city did this” further examined Ernst May’s planned residential communities. The message could not have been clearer. As political activism siphoned energy from Johnson’s commitment to the Department of Architecture at MoMA, Barr and the trustees had moved on. Even before Johnson’s formal resignation, they had lent the museum’s imprimatur to a vector of architectural modernism that he abhorred.
Johnson’s sole contribution to the show was a “modern, low-cost apartment” interior. What could have motivated even this limited cooperation? One answer is that the commitment to participate was made as Johnson was attempting to establish his interior-design practice, leaning heavily on the skills of Jan Ruhtenberg, now a recent émigré, who had worked for Mies in Berlin (and had been Johnson’s lover there). Art-world associates provided two commissions that boded well for the nascent decorating firm: a refurbished townhouse for MoMA associate Eddie Warburg, and bespoke furnishings ordered by Chick Austin for the new Avery Memorial Wing at the Wadsworth Athenaeum. The Avery Wing’s opening in February 1934 introduced more high-society clients to Johnson’s work. He wasted no time in pursuing them — unsuccessfully, as it turned out. A remodeling project for a physician’s office on the Upper East Side fell through. Far more disheartening was his loss of the commission for the interior of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s private gallery. Her son Nelson, another MoMA trustee, likewise chose an established design professional over Johnson to remodel an apartment. The dream of a career in refurbishing Manhattan’s beau-monde residences was stillborn. 106
The model apartment installation at MoMA’s Housing Exhibit exemplified Johnson’s failure as a decorator. His approach was entirely derived from the work of Mies and Reich, as showcased in the design he had commissioned from them for his own apartment, which he described as “the first room entirely in my latest style in America.” 107 Their artful juxtaposition of straw floor-matting against gleaming tropical woods, leather, chromium steel, and floor-to-ceiling silk drapes defined the International Style interior for Johnson. But his attempt to replicate the formula in a low-cost model room with furnishings donated by Macy’s proved clumsy and amateurish, as he must have recognized. For an aesthete long on ambition and wealth but short on training and confidence, the public display of mediocrity can only have been humiliating. According to John Horgan, a contemporary psychologist specializing in homegrown extremism, anger and emotional vulnerability are potent catalysts for radicalization at one specific juncture: “the phase of initially becoming involved.” 108 Six weeks after the close of the Housing Exhibit, Johnson and Blackburn bid farewell to all that and embarked in search of their destiny as American fascists.
It could not have escaped Johnson’s notice that Bauer’s reputation was ascending as his stalled. While he dismissed her as a mere “do-gooder,” Bauer’s Modern Housing, published at the close of 1934, earned a five-column New York Times review that raved “Catherine Bauer’s Authoritative Study Is as Timely as This Morning’s Newspaper.” 109 Two years earlier, the newspaper had declined to review The International Style. The Times aired just one criticism of Modern Housing: Bauer had provided a diagnosis, but not a cure. “One puts down the book, with its wealth of detail and its admirable pages of illustrations, with the feeling that she has stated a problem most effectively, but that she has by no means solved it.” 110 The author seemed to agree. In 1934, recognizing the latent power of stakeholders in social housing to shape federal policy, she threw herself into labor-union activism.
A team of German-born architects practicing in the U.S. supplied a model for Bauer’s housing efforts. In 1932, Oscar Stonorov and his Bauhaus-trained design partner, Alfred Krasner, had pitched a housing scheme to representatives of Philadelphia’s Full Fashioned Hosiery Workers Union, whose members were losing homes through foreclosure in the midst of the Depression. To fund the low-rent, restricted-profit development, Stonorov procured one of the first loans from the New Deal’s National Industrial Recovery Act. The Carl Mackley Houses, named for a martyred Union member, comprised nearly 300 units, each boasting electric appliances and balconies, along with communal amenities such as an auditorium, a nursery school, a swimming pool, and an underground parking garage. A Union journal likened the building’s linear façade to “the superstructure of an ocean liner” — an accurate metaphor for a transatlantic Siedlung, its neues bauen forms and collectivist ethos adapted for American use. 111
Stonorov recruited Bauer as a “labor skate,” slang for a union lobbyist. As executive secretary of the Labor Housing Conference or LHC, the lobbying arm of the Pennsylvania Federation of Labor, she promoted the Hosiery Workers’ project as “the first successful effort of a group of workers to secure governmental aid toward bettering their housing conditions” and “the first step in a movement which may sooner or later change the face of the country.” 112 Bauer traveled across the Midwest, meeting with union leaders and urging them to join the LHC in order to magnify its political clout. “I am still astonished at the suddenness with which I have changed my whole living pattern in the past year,” she wrote to a friend. “And believe me, it’s a long jump from a Radical Intellectual to a Labor Skate.” 113 Energized but chronically short of cash, Bauer felt she had “probably typed, spoken, argued, and promoted this word ‘housing’ as many times as anyone in the country.” 114 Using the Carl Mackley Houses to demonstrate proof-of-concept, the LHC platform pressed for federal financing of “large-scale planned housing developments on a nonprofit basis, designed, constructed, and administered in direct collaboration of bona fide groups of workers and consumers.” 115 Organized labor, Bauer insisted, constituted the only coalition powerful enough to lobby for systemic change. She predicted bitter, unavoidable opposition from entrenched real-estate development interests. 116 And she was right.
Bauer worked as a union lobbyist or ‘labor skate,’ and drafted much of the Housing Act of 1937, which approached housing as a public resource.
Bauer drafted much of what would become the Public Housing Act of 1937, which approached housing as a public resource rather than a profit-making commodity. A first draft provided for “grants and loans to … cooperatives and other types of non-commercial housing organizations.” 117 However, paralleling Johnson’s claim that the Siedlung was “not based on the actual situation in the contemporary world outside Russia,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Real Estate Boards decried the draft bill as communistic. 118 As passed into law, the Housing Act was stripped of provisions that would have allowed cooperative, community-based housing societies to develop and manage projects for low- and medium-income residents. Whatever its progressive attributes, the 1937 Housing Act “could equally well be interpreted as an important brake on the social democratic possibilities of the New Deal,” as historian Gail Radford observes. Provisos that low-balled unit costs and tied new construction to slum clearance ultimately linked American perceptions of “public housing” with a bleak architecture of poverty and alienation. 119
Over the next several decades, the Carl Mackley Houses offered an unusual dual case study as both nonprofit and profit-extracting shelter. The declining fortunes of the Hosiery Workers Union prompted the sale of the complex to a private development firm in 1968, and maintenance soon fell to standards typically attributed to “the projects.” In the early 1990s, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority purchased the property for one dollar and returned it to the nonprofit sector. A loan from the Housing Investment Trust of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations funded repairs and remodeling.
The renovated Carl Mackley Apartments now provide affordable housing for low-to-moderate-income families and seniors receiving rental subsides through Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937. 120 Resident satisfaction is high; vacancies are few and far between. New signage celebrates the building’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places with a fresh logo inspired by the Bauhaus academy shield designed by Oscar Schlemmer in 1923. The new symbol conjoins the ideals of das neue Bauen with those of Bauer’s Modern Housing, perfectly encapsulating Bauer’s attempt to transplant the architectural practices of German Social Democracy to America. As we now understand, it will take acute vigilance to prevent Johnson’s opposing polemic, fascist populism, from celebrating a similar presence in our contemporary urban landscape.
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